Where Are All The Great Hotel Apps?

Your App Is Boring

Posted by Hunter Hillegas

Your Hotel App Is Boring

Your hotel app is boring.

Yup, I said it... and yes, I'm talking to all of you major hotel corporations with apps on the iPhone, iPad and on Android. The good news is only a small amount of innovative thinking can make all of them much better.

Ok, maybe boring is the wrong word but there's a distinct lack of utility in the current crop of mobile apps from the various hotels on the Las Vegas Strip.

The hotel apps we're getting today remind me of the early days of the Web when most sites were basically glorified brochures, transmogrified from their original printed counterparts. These types of apps typically feature photos, basic details on rooms and amenities along with restaurant information and if you're lucky, some kind of map.

Now, some of today's apps are better than others. I don't want to name names but on the iPhone, if your app doesn't support iOS 4.0, include upgraded graphics for the iPhone 4 Retina Display or lacks even basic support for the things that make a smartphone smart, well then, you're doing it wrong.

These current apps are a marketing tool and little more. Reference aids have their place of course but I can't help but feel like these hotel mega-corps are under-achieving here. Where is all the real innovation?

But Hunter you ask, what kind of innovation are you looking for? Well, there's the obvious stuff like booking hotel rooms but in my ideal future, I want much more. Consider being able to do any of the following:

  • Make dinner reservations without all the hassle of multiple phone calls. Popular Web site OpenTable.com has made some inroads here but their penetration in Las Vegas is relatively low (My app Vegas Mate integrates with Open Table when it can).
  • The Cirque show you are attending has wrapped up and you're planning to head back to your hotel but your car is buried deep in the valet. How about the ability to punch in your ticket number into an app and alert the valet folks that you're on your way so they can bring up your car.
  • The hotel has extra tickets for tonight's show. You were kinda interested when you checked in but at a hundred bucks a pop, you passed at the time. Should those seats stay empty or is it better for everyone if a buyer and seller are connected? Do this through a smart app that knows your preferences.
  • View your complete room folio, win/loss record and other stats from your account without having to pick up a phone or wait on hold for the over-worked front desk staff. Take that to the next step - let me check out of my room via an app as I'm speeding away in my taxi to the airport.
  • Book an appointment at the spa or salon right from your smartphone.
  • Create a compete itinerary of activities for your weekend, privately share with your trip mates and optionally save as a PDF for reference.
  • Query table game mix, limits and location. Looking for your favorite Wheel of Fortune slot? Can't find a certain denomination? Take Harrah's web based Slot Finder and Table Game Finder and put it in your pocket - imagine being able to locate a $10 craps table without having to lap the pit a few times, looking at every single game.

Now, all of the above are predicated on the ability of the hotel to integrate these capabilities into their existing systems and infrastructure, something that in some cases is simply not possible with the often antiquated technology that runs our favorite hotels. The hotel industry, specifically casino resorts, are typically very slow to jump into new technology. Anyone that's been visiting Las Vegas for more than ten years remembers slot club cards that had actual punch holes in them before the move to magnetic strips. As recently as the opening of Bellagio, most Strip resorts didn't even have unified rewards programs. It's still common to see AS/400 mini-computers running some back of house operations, even at some of the most profitable places on the Blvd.




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Comments & Discussion:

Well, I've been saying for a while that the true destination is point of sale with the user. So that people can buy tickets, place reservations, and so on from where-ever they happen to be.

Things like iPhone 4 retina display graphics, on the other hand? That's geeking out. That's very much like complaining about Android apps that don't support moving to the SD card on Android 2.2. Sure, none of the Vegas apps do, but very few of ANY apps do, and even if they can only Nexus Ones and EVOs could do it officially. It's too small an interest for devs to pay attention to. I use about 50 apps on my N1, and only maybe 10% of them officially support moving to SD card.

I say this because even though the Admiral means well and has always been good to me, he is about one rung below earning his Black Turtleneck, and Apple die-hards (not to say the least of Apple's *designers*) get very lost in eye-candy that looks appealing but isn't very important. A sales-oriented app needs to run on the greatest variety of hardware (that's why I think MGM's augmented reality app is unimportant at least) and be easy to use. As much as I'd love OpenGL flybys down an imaginary Strip, that's just not necessary.

There's also some minor here and there things that simply don't mesh with technology or the sales structure of the resorts. I'd love to GPS navigate my way to a slot machine, but that requires really fine placement details that can't be achieved in a huge building of signal-blocking steel. Yes, with some cell towers hidden around the casino they could triangulate a rough location, but individual slots and tables require the really fine precision that can only be achieved by talking to a GPS satellite, and you can't do that in a casino. Then you have the fact that tables can open and close frequently through the day and minimums are one of those things that go up and down based on demand.


And selling spare tickets at a discount, well, the casinos like to do that, but they also don't want to breed contempt or gunshy buying activities among their guests. That's why they have third-party seat filler agencies do this work for them. And that's why the third-party seat filler agencies ask that you do not let strangers know that you may have paid less for your seat than they did. Nobody enjoys sitting next to someone who paid half as much.


Given how the resorts reacted to third-party booking agencies years ago, I guess I just have serious doubts on anything improving. The resorts are sorta kinda tied down to a closed-source, un-social Web 1.0 way of doing things instead of the whole shared resource API method. They aren't really interested in setting up indie apps as contracted agencies, because along with the room for confusion and fraud (imagine somebody making an app that pushed you to a phishing page when you tried to reserve a room), there's the matter that at some point those indie apps would feel they are owed a finder's fee or something similar, and then it wouldn't benefit them anymore.

I guess what I'm saying Hunter, is that they're glad you're helping them advertise; but they don't want to support you to a level where you feel they owe you something.

Supporting the iPhone 4's Retina Display is not "geeking out." The display is a huge improvement over previous models, and developers who haven't taken advantage of this new feature in the 45 days since the i4's release are, quite frankly, missing out.

Obviously, any future iPhones are going to have this display (or better). So if you're going to have to move your apps in that direction eventually, why not do it sooner rather than later?

As a feature, what the screen looks like is 1000x more important than the ability to move apps/data to removable memory. There is no comparison between those two features.

If a casino company's willing to spend $100 million on IT to collect and analyze player information (http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/10_33/b4191070705858_page_5.htm) I've got to think that investing a few hundred thousand into interacting better with tech-savvy and possibly high-yield customers is a good idea. The ones who pioneer this will also have a leg up when more people start going mobile, which will mean less money spent on trial and error when you've got more people using those channels and development is more expensive.

It might be a niche market right now, but casinos are going to have to cater to more and more niche markets to stay relevant.

It's definitely worth some investment.

"...their penetration in Las Vegas is relatively low ..."

Well, my own personal penetration in Las Vegas is also relatively low, but that's a genetic problem that no amount of technology can remedy. Believe me. I've looked into it.

Hey Min,

Regarding Retina, I agree with erzeszut - it's quickly becoming a 'standard' feature, partially because non-optimized apps really show up and second because it's fairly easy for developers to support - include 2x images in your app and the OS does the work. The thing is that not including it shows a bit of laziness. Vegas Mate 2.7 will be fully Retina optimized and in running the test builds, I can tell you it makes a huge difference and customers can instantly tell the difference.

Regarding location technology, you're right, indoors we're not gonna get GPS. Fortunately, there are techniques to get less accurate positioning - properly mapped WiFi networks can provide better fidelity than cell towers, certainly enough for a general sense of positioning. I have to be careful what I say here due to my NDA but this is an area that will improve greatly in the coming months and years.

I certainly understand where you are coming from Hunter, but I think we are light years away from meaningful apps from the hotels. As you mentioned, the hotel back end systems are no where near the point of being app integrated.

Those that are Vegas regulars know that department systems are definitely not integrated and in most cases don't seem close to being so or even intentionally integrated. Even HET, who could be argued as the leader in systems integration for their properties lags pretty far behind in areas of tying all of their systems together.

I definitely like your comparison to the early stages of the web, and you aren't far off. The biggest issue though is similar to what you mentioned about the current apps. The corporations that are running these resorts are boring and their apps are likely to be as well. It's a corporate philosophy that would need to change in order to see anything remarkable, I'm sure there are one or two independents that might make some strides, but given that the website formula has offered nothing spectacular from these companies and the fact that in almost all cases the websites of the companies have been dismal (although within the last year HR has made some strides) I can't see us expecting anything groundbreaking from the casinos.

To the developer standpoint, I think it's admirable for what you are asking for, but given the fact that even technology companies that are supposed to be familiar with the technology are fairly loathe to open up the systems, I think it's highly unlikely for the casinos to open up the systems in this manner. Given that most of the restaurants (especially the higher end) are individual systems for the most part, I think you run into the same situation as above too, a standard process across the board is going to be difficult that doesn't involve a monumental effort like Opentable has done on their side is going to only make it more difficult.

There are some positives from what the casinos have been doing that I've seen from the technology side. Although minor but considering what they have been doing it's fairly significant.

Luxor will personalize a webpage for certain clients which details their offers and status, and they've made some inroads in keeping their specials online in the form of a weekly flyer. They also are the most vigilant property I've been too, for contacting hotel guests with specials during a stay. Last trip they offered $50 massages or Facials (for 50 minutes) during my stay that I received throught the phone system. That's a good start, but considering my players offers includes spa discounts that the players club and spa seem to always have a problem using, I'd say it's a while before we see it incorporated into an app.

MGM overall has done a fair job at keeping their website content up to date with happy hour specials and revised menus (especially their tasting menus). Harrahs does a decent job with this, at least to the point that I'm fairly confident that I'm not looking at something that's older then 3 months when I view the site, definitely a positive but a long way away from on the go availability, if I had to guess to these updates are likely to be done manually rather then integrated for a restaurant or system to update, which only adds to the issues of providing on the go flexibility.

I agree, but I think that is a lot to ask. They can't even manage to give me wifi in my room and at the pool or across resorts in the same chain. I know a local town where I can get free wifi up and down main st. but not Vegas.

Clearly the only way to proceed is for Hunter to pwned them with his clearly superior app. Whilst they drink their tangy cool aid.

A few suggestions I would like to add:

(1) While I recognize this would not be easy to do, it would also be great to know table availability. If there is no room at the table, it doesn't matter what it offers (but I still might want to know if I want to wait for room).
(2) Table limits would be nice to know (this might have already been considered).
(3) Have the restaurant option also provides menus and expected wait time.
(4) Why does MGM have apps for NYNY but not Luxor or Bellagio? Harrah's only has one for Caesar's?
(5) The App for Boyd is proably the best app out there (for example, it allows you to login to your Player's account and see your speacial offers), but it limits by property. It would be nice to search among all properties of a company.
(6) This might be a stretch, but how about including bus schedules for Las Vegas and cab phone numbers/auto-call a cab to come to your current GPS location?

I'll think of more.


As someone who has recently jumped into the smartphone pool, there definitely are things that the hotels could do to take advantage of the abilities of these devices. Here's a thought I had:

These days, one can check-in for a flight from a smartphone and also get a mobile boarding pass sent to their phone. A number of the major US carriers offer it (Delta, United, American, Continental) while many others allow you to check in via a mobile device but you have to get your boarding pass from a self-check in kiosk.

Taking a page from the airline industry, why not allow folks to check into the hotel via their mobile device? Offering that option would cut down on the lines at the check in desk. Since the hotel already has the credit card on file, they can run a quick check on the card to see if it is still valid, and taking a page from Wynncore, have the person use their player's club card as a room key. Or perhaps have a kiosk or two off to the side of the lobby in which the person inserts a blank key card into the kiosk and scan the barcode on their smartphone and that activates the key card(s) for their room.

I still cannot understand why hotels are not using self check-in kiosks as a way to speed up check-in, and making such things accessible via smartphone would actually get folks out into the casino quicker. The only hotel I've ever seen and used such a service was at the Riviera my first Vegas trip back in 2004. Had I waited in line to check-in with a clerk, I would have been waiting 10-15 minutes.


Here are some of my thoughts:

While you are asking for a lot; I think cross-platform integration would be the first thing for those casino/hotels with apps. Whether you choose to believe it or not, many people now have a smartphone that is NOT the iPhone. I find it sorely disappointing that VegasMate or any of the MGM properties don't have an app for Android.

And to ask for the full-blown integration with the hotel and restaurants within a casino app - it would be a pretty massive undertaking for both the hotel and the associated restaurants/attractions to do such a thing, not to mention the costs and time of development.

Cross-platform is certainly very important - Android is coming up quickly. That said though, Android poses some specific challenges to a developer with a wide variety of popular devices that are different in some fundamental ways. That's one of the reasons that Vegas Mate isn't on Android (yet). That though, is a whole different topic.

In a macro sense, nothing in my post was meant to be specific to iPhone. I imagine this future for all smartphones.

As far as costs for the hotels to implement - we really have no idea how much it would cost them or how long it would take. I don't think it is safe to assume 'a ton' and 'a really long time' - that's painting with far too broad a brush.

My guess is that it would vary widely from property to property based on the age, quality, and level of integration of their information systems. Some of the backend systems that are used, especially by the newer hotels (i.e. Aria, Encore), allow for integration with external services.

My plans for Vegas Mate include adding a lot more 'utility' to go with all the presented information. The idea for this piece came out me sitting down to think about features and having to cross off many of my best ideas because they simply can't be done by an outside developer without access to internals.

I love the idea of doing check-in and check-out on the device. In the future when you can use your smartphone as a hotel key, there would be no reason to stand in line at all if you didn't want to.

Also worth mentioning that others are starting to think about this stuff.

No matter what you think about software patents, this application from Apple for travel related app services is interesting in terms of features:

http://www.patentlyapple.com/patently-apple/2010/04/itravel-apples-future-travel-centric-app-for-the-iphone.html

Hunter:

I don't know about this wifi thing, but I can tell when you slap on an "I have to be careful about NDA" that you're talking about something very Apple-specific. I generally don't think with just one brand.

When you download an app from Android Market, it specifically tells you if the app asks for cell tower based or "GPS satellite (fine)" location awareness. If this wifi thing is under your Apple dev NDA, I'm guessing it won't work on anything but Apple devices.

It may just come down to demand. Someone who visits a couple times a year may enjoy the weekly email offers or a newsletter like mine to keep them up on the pulse of what is happening.

But between the fact that the average age of a Las Vegas visitor is late-40's (despite the Camp Vegas stuff and all the douchebags you see), you have a significant portion of visitors who probably don't even have a smartphone.

Then you drill down to those who do, and how many of them are either 1. so ga-ga about Las Vegas that they want the apps and 2. how many will use them and the audience gets pretty small.

People come to Las Vegas with very little planned and like to roam. Part of the fun is discovering. You are assuming that most visitors live in your world. Literally live every second of their life off of their phone, and want access to ever minute detail of what they want to do/go/see in every aspect of their lives at their fingertips.

NOW... I'm not tossing a cold bucket of water on this. Not at all. There IS a demand. Hunter is filling the demand. All the better if the properties themselves don't. Find your niche, serve it well. It has worked very well for the Apple corporation.

But on a cost/benefit analysis: Putting together a cutting edge, comprehensive app the subsect who completely live their life on their phone and who are also rabid Vegas visitors may be too small of a segment to justify the expense right now.

Excellent write up Hunter!

I agree that Vegas hotel apps need to be able to a lot more. A trip to Vegas is arguably one of the most interactive trips that one takes. If you allow it to be, it's a 24/7 stimulation of our senses (some pun intended). Resort owners invest millions upon millions into understanding customer behavior and how to generate a desired response from those customers.

It would only seem natural that they then take that knowledge to the next level by interacting with their customers as often as possible. While the typical Apple customer tends to fit into a certain demographic, the iPhone (as well as other smartphones) is a device that goes well beyond that demographic. It's very common to find a 50-something executive toting around an iPhone.

My only concern (and I don't think this is a reason for the bland casino apps) is the size of the app that would be able to do all of the things you suggested. For that level of communication, how big do you think the app would need to be? Considering Apple's restrictions on app size as it pertains to your internet connection, could that be a possible deterrent for app expansion?

Hey mctrees,

You're right - Apple currently places a 20MB restriction on apps downloaded over 3G. I don't know if the Android Marketplace has a similar restriction but I'm guessing that it doesn't.

Anyway, I doubt that would be an issue. Building the kind of functionality I'm talking about would be far more logic/code heavy than media asset heavy and it's the latter that really increase the size of the app.

Great article Hunter. Are Vegas hotels/casinos doing any less than hotels in other cities in the App world? I haven't seen an app from any hotel chain that offers what you're suggesting.

I'm not an expert in this world, are there other transactional apps available? I love, and use, the open table app but that is just for a reservation and not a purchase. Maybe the chipotle app is a step towards what you're talking about. It seems as if you can place an order for pickup, but you don't complete the actual transaction on the phone.

Vegas seems to be a little slow to join most trends, so I'm guessing that, in general, they're waiting for someone else to create the perfect app and will then copy it.

ECG -

That's a good question. From what I've seen, there's not a ton of great apps in travel in general. There are some exceptions, like Kayak, but generally, this is an area with slow growth in tech. I think a big part of that is that industry wide, a lot of the backend technology is older and slow to be updated.

Of course there are a lot of examples of apps that do similar things outside of travel - there are plenty of great ideas to steal from other categories if they wanted to.

I've seen some talk from Hilton about doing some of this stuff but who knows how far off it actually is / isn't.